It happens every year around this time. Hundreds of communities around the globe and thousands of individuals are earnestly planning a variety of events to remember the Armenian Genocide. The events may be scholarly forums, religious commemorations, demonstrations or cultural activities, but all seek to promote a theme of identity. This year, of course, is the 107th year of the start of the Genocide. Significant progress has been accomplished, particularly since the “great reawakening” in 1965 when our journey became a public campaign. Our challenge continues to be passing the torch of justice to each succeeding generation to ensure continuity and to tune our messaging to a world easily distracted by changing wind direction. The responsibility for success in this journey is ours, but at times our end point vision has not been commonly held. A simple question addressing the goal of remembrance can draw diverse responses from our communities.
When speaking of the Genocide, Armenians have a variety of objectives. Some of them, although focused in different areas, are compatible. For example, scholarly work and educational investments fuel our cause. In the 1960s, the scholarly work on the Genocide was limited to a few trailblazers, and thanks to the vision and investment of our communities, academic research and publications are currently quite advanced. Research institutes and university chairs worldwide continue to build the foundation of truth. Genocide studies in secondary schools in America continue to expand, resulting in early education for this nation. The days of questioning who are Armenians and the Genocide are thankfully over. Investment is required to sustain these gains, but the infrastructure has been built over the last 40 years. A question remains that is discreetly debated within the global Armenian nation. How do we define justice?
For some Armenians, the canonization of the victims has brought a new and peaceful victory. They are now revered as eternal saints in our global church. Within the activist community, the recognition of the Genocide is the central event. Tremendous progress has been made for the formal recognition of the Armenian Genocide in major nations and institutions. Barely 50 years ago, the veracity of the Armenian Genocide was challenged on the global stage and within the government of this country. The evolution of redemption continued with formal recognition by many countries. The United States has exhausted the English language for years in order to acknowledge the atrocities while avoiding the term “genocide.” These last barriers to the truth were removed in this country with perpetual resolutions from both Congressional Houses and finally formal recognition by President Joe Biden last year. The latter is critical because the executive branch drives the foreign policy of this country. The recognition process was slightly diluted when the government announced its historical recognition but essentially exonerated the current government in Turkey. It is not a legal ruling and will undoubtedly be addressed in the future. With the recognition battle essentially won (although major holdouts continue to be Great Britain and Israel), many Armenians are asking themselves if that is the end point. Are we satisfied with the world community recognizing that the Armenian atrocities were indeed genocide? Does recognition equate to justice? For a significant portion of our community, the answer is unequivocally no!
This brings us to the long held vision of reparations. The logic is simple. Genocide is not only a vile act of inhumanity, but it is crime. Someone has to be held accountable, and the precedent is for the successor’s government to assume that role. Reparations are defined as the “making of amends for a wrong committed by compensating those who were wronged.” The “wrong” in this case is genocide and those who were “wronged” are the Armenian people. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) clearly outlines the legal criteria. Reparations can take many forms, primarily financial compensation and/or territorial transfers. This remains a complicated process given the emergence of the Republic of Armenia as the legal representative of the Armenian nation since 1991. There have been individual and communal cases on a smaller level in recent years, but the role of the Republic of Armenia is critical. For example, in the current “no preconditions” dialogue with Turkey and the RoA on normalizations of relations, most Armenians fear that Turkey will eventually insist on preconditions such as Artsakh or the acceptance of the Treaty of Kars. The latter was signed in 1921 by the Bolsheviks who were not yet the recognized leaders of Russia and the Kemalists for Turkey who were not recognized until the Republic was established in October of 1923. This calls into question its validity today, and successive Armenian governments have not formally endorsed the matter. It has essentially been postponed as Armenia and Turkey have not had diplomatic relations since the early 1990s. If the Armenian government was to accept the current borders (outlined in the Treaty), it would be a significant setback for territorial justice.
There has been mild tension between the diaspora and Armenia on this matter. The diaspora has been the vanguard for “Hai Tahd” for decades and is still dominated by descendants of genocide survivors. For the diaspora, it is a sensitive and important issue that they expect the Republic will endorse at the appropriate time. For the Republic, which has a multitude of foreign relations issues with hostile Turks and Azerbaijanis, advocating for recognition has been the priority with vagueness beyond that point. Nevertheless, at any of the public rallies this year, it will be expected to again openly advocate for a return of the western Armenian provinces and financial reparations. As the reparations phase gains momentum in the coming decades, focusing on a common vision of justice will be important. Without abandoning the vision of Turkish reparations, we must supplement our message with current political relevance which will connect with a distracted world.
One of the concerns I hear from a variety of participants in this struggle is how do we keep our message fresh and relevant when many view the Genocide in the past tense only. Many politicians who support the recognition of the Genocide do not speak of reparations but may focus on supporting the current republic. For others, recognizing the event is closure. How do we combat the argument that correcting history is sufficient? For many years, in commemorative speeches and demonstrations, we have used the slogan “a genocide unpunished enables other genocides.” Unfortunately, those words rang true as we witnessed Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosia, Darfur and others. Most Armenians could not have predicted that those words could refer to continuing atrocities from the same nation that started the Genocide. Erdogan and his criminal sidekick Aliyev often refer to their relations as “One Nation Two States.” The experience of the Armenians has been a continuation of the discrimination, oppression and violence associated with their predecessors. From an atrocity standpoint, they operate as one nation with their latest crime spree in late 2020 in Artsakh. Just as prisons were emptied in 1915 so they could kill Armenians, jihadist mercenaries were imported for the same purpose. The war crimes committed over the last 30 years will fill volumes. Our message of relevance is that the deniers, emboldened by escaping responsibility, are continuing their assault to eliminate all Armenians from the homeland and usurp what remains of Armenian territory. The objective is the same as 100 years ago; pan-Turkic alliances require removing peaceful Christian Armenians from the 2022 landscape. It could be Talaat or Aliyev speaking from the same script. Ignore the crime, and you enable the criminals. The atrocities continue. There is little difference in intention from the Turkish cousins between the two time periods. Attire and tactics change, but not the goal. Erdogan has publicly stated his admiration for an Ottoman Empire that administered institutional discrimination and degenerated into genocide. What is there to admire except the crimes? Genocide is defined beyond murder and involves cultural deprivation, dispossession and population discrimination. The criminal behavior never stopped in Nakhichevan. It never stopped for hidden Armenians in western Armenia, and it never stopped in Artsakh.
Right now, the world’s attention is on the plight of Ukraine. That will eventually change, but for the moment it is the trend. The media work in the moment and with full saturation. The parallels with Armenia and Artsakh must be drawn with conviction beyond the ignored victim. It is an opportunity to speak on self-determination and remedial secession. We have two choices. We can appear as a people frustrated by the double standards, or we can work to ride the tail wind of Ukraine’s visibility. I recommend the latter. Let’s keep in mind that western support has limitations. From 1918 to 1920, the Armenian Legionnaires fought valiantly under the Allies’ flags to defeat the Turks in the Middle East. They were acknowledged for their capability by the liberator of Jerusalem General Allenby. Most of the men fought to avenge the death of Armenians and on the French promise of an Armenian Cilicia after the war. We know they were betrayed. The Ukrainians were openly flirting with NATO for years knowing that breaking neutrality would aggravate the east or the west. Eventually, it led to this tragic war. If the relationship had evolved to that point, why weren’t the missile defense systems and air power given to them, as deterrence, months ago? Now, despite the brave defense of their territory, thousands have died, millions are displaced, and they will probably lose half their country. Previous administrations encouraged the western leaning of Georgia and when the Russians invaded in 2008, the Georgians were on their own and lost South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Sometimes we cry for the milk only to find that it is sour. Our message on justice is about self-interest. Take advantage of what we can when we are presented with the opportunity. The Armenian Genocide is about today: continued oppression in Artsakh and Armenia, unpunished criminals creating havoc (Kurds, Cyprus, Iraq, Syria) and a world that ignores an aggressor and will see history repeated. History has not only repeated itself; it never ended.